It started, really, with the ban. November 19, 1980. That’s when CBS—then the “Tiffany Network,” the standard-bearer of quality television, of old-school broadcasting decorum—rejected a certain Calvin Klein Jeans ad.
Now, you could argue that the revolution actually began on the commercial’s set, when director Richard Avedon coaxed a sex-kittenish performance out of then-15-year-old (!) Brooke Shields and got her to purr those infamous lines: “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” That moment on the set, of course, instantly encapsulated the m.o. of much Calvin Klein advertising to come: a certain coquettish crotch-centricity and an overtly hot-and-bothered way of representing youthful splendor.
But just focusing on Calvin’s thematic and aesthetic tendencies sort of misses the point. The “Nothing” campaign, titillating as it was, really became something when CBS pulled the plug. Long before Tina Brown ever hit our shores, Calvin Klein was the original buzz merchant—using media (in his case, advertising) to inspire media about media, and to build his brand/empire. Starting with young Brooke, the scandal was the thing. The ad itself was only the point of departure, the talking point.
When Calvin tossed homoeroticism into the mix (Klein’s own, carefully tended sexual ambiguity—wink—was part of the show), the buzz only got louder. Pole-vaulter Tom Hinthaus towering over Times Square in his bulging CK tighty-whities. Marky Mark grabbing his crotch. Heroin-chic waifs—males and androgynous females—milling about aimlessly (in another Avedon production) for cKone (the first unisex scent). Model Joel West tenting his boxer shorts. Those notorious basement-rec-room spots featuring teenage boys stripping and flexing at the prompting of an off-camera male whose voice had all the oily intonation of a porn director. (After tabloid cries of KIDDIE PORN!, Calvin was forced to pull those ads.)
Right from the start, the real campaign was always the meta-campaign, the endless ripple effect of countless carriers of the CK media virus exclaiming “Did you see that new Calvin Klein ad?” in the days and weeks after their first exposure. Calvin has always known exactly how to get a rise out of us, evoking just the right mixture of outrage and fascination.
It happened again most recently, of course, with that traffic-stopping series of billboards starring long-haired Aussie god Travis Fimmel (his crotch deserves its own Zip Code). It’s not clear what comes between Travis and his Calvins—but for the sake of male egos everywhere, let’s hope it’s at least a little padding.